LGC’s commentary on the Labour Party Conference
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The jovial atmosphere at this week’s Labour party conference has contrasted sharply with the underlying tension of last year, which lingered like a bad smell just a day after the end of a bitter battle for the party’s leadership.
Jeremy Corbyn’s return to the Association of Labour Councillors annual reception also encapsulated this shift. The Labour leader’s address in Liverpool last year appeared rushed and vague as he struggled to make himself heard above loud chatter that created a din of indifference. This year he was more confident and considered as he outlined an extensive programme of reform for local government.
Councillors’ attention was largely held and some vocal support forthcoming, but there was a sense that many were reserving judgement until they fully understood the detail behind big pledges to end borrowing restrictions for housing and “piecemeal” devolution.
Nick Forbes, leader of the Local Government Association’s Labour Group, followed Mr Corbyn with a speech which sounded a loud note of caution and demonstrated that, as far as councillors were concerned, there are still issues to be resolved.
Cllr Forbes was clearly frustrated at not yet being permitted to address conference as the party opted for a more delegate focused process. “I have been waiting to make a speech all day!” he proclaimed on taking to the stage.
A particularly animated Mr Forbes warned that Labour in local government had much work to do to persuade the party that councils were a “force for good” and should be taken seriously in policy discussions. His annoyance was palpable as he said that the party “needs to learn from what local government has achieved”.
The buoyant positivity of shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne during his speech on Sunday reflected the general conference mood as he promised a “renaissance in local government” through “some of the largest sets of reforms in modern times”. He said these would end compulsory tendering of services and forced privatisation that had been veiled in secrecy and “hollowed out” council capacity.
Appearing at a fringe meeting alongside Cllr Forbes today, Mr Gwynne praised councils that would be responsible for delivering his commitments. But he admitted that his pledge of £1.5bn of extra funding in the first year of a Labour government fell short of filling a projected £6bn gap and admitted that the party was still working out how to significantly rebuild the neccesary capacity in the system.
Cllr Forbes later told LGC there is still a significant section of the party obsessed with central control and cited the example of the party pledge to establish a national care service, when areas should be trusted to find solutions to distinct local problems.
On Monday London mayor Sadiq Khan chose to rail against cuts to funding for emergency services rather than promote the merits of devolution and virtues of local government.
In contrast, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham used his appearance at a Monday night fringe event to call for the end to our “highly centralised” political system which had abandoned large parts of the country after the collapse of local industries and nurtured a “sense of dislocation”. He said devolution was the only answer to a “catastrophic disconnect” and called for deals to be struck in all areas to “allow people on a local level to make real change”.
Conference demonstrated that Labour is clearly enjoying riding the crest of a wave, boosted by electoral gains, a new-found party unity and a fragile Conservative government threatening a Brexit-induced meltdown.
But despite ambitious plans for local government reform, Labour in local government is yet to be convinced that its voice will help shape the direction of policy travel.
While this persists, doubts will remain over whether the party can resist a centralist impulse and truly empower communities.